Interview: Volker Lemke of FAI
Volke Lemke talks to ITIJ about the importance of flexible operational processes in air ambulance provision, fleet renewal considerations, and why investment in patient isolation units was key to stability in the face of a challenging marketplace
How has your operational capacity changed over the past year?
The activities of our ambulance fleet have changed completely since the beginning of the pandemic, and so have the planned resource provision. While we were still working with four to five Learjet 60s and two to three Challenger 604s per day until the beginning of last year, the ratio has now shifted to two Learjets and four Challengers in daily use. In addition, our ultra-long-range Global Express aircraft were increasingly used for ambulance flights, especially for the transport of several asymptomatic Covid-19 patients. In general, we created more capacity for patient mobile isolation unit (PMIU) transports and placed a clear focus on this, without stopping the operation of our Learjets for other ‘normal’ cases.
How have you managed the ever-changing travel restriction and quarantine requirements for your flight and medical crews?
That was, and is, one of the most complex tasks for our company, because the processes that have been used for years were completely thrown overboard last year. While we were sending crews around the world almost every day before the pandemic to optimize our floating base business model, our operations team suddenly had to completely rethink and come up with new destinations and hubs. But here, too, you can see that things like this become routine after a certain period of getting used to. Basically, we have learned a lot and even achieved better, more flexible, operational processes. It goes without saying that we had signed contracts with a laboratory in the region over a year ago to receive PCR tests for our crews around the clock every day, and in the meantime, fortunately, almost all crewmembers have been vaccinated twice.
Your early adoption of the EpiShutt le patient isolation unit resulted in a huge increase in flight requests in 2020; has this continued into 2021?
Indeed! There are always new waves of infections in various areas of the world, just a few weeks ago, for example, the disastrous situation in India unravelled, with the subsequent collapse of the health system. We received a large number of inquiries from all over the world and we had 10 Covid transports from there within just one week. In order to meet these requests, we have expanded the transport capacities again, and now have three EpiShuttles, two IsoArk and two IsoChamber PMIUs. This allows us to react very flexibly depending on the patient's condition and offer various solutions for Covid transports. We have carried out a total of 186 Covid missions with 215 positive patients (as of 17 June) since the beginning of the pandemic, including one with three PMIUs.
Was there a particularly noteworthy case of the transports with the isolation units in the last 12 months?
Of course, we had a number of complex missions in which the customers later praised us for the smooth conduct of the operation, but especially because quite often, we carried out life-saving flights in which patients were stabilized at the last moment on-site and could then be evacuated for better treatment. Amazingly, the most spectacular mission with an isolation unit was in fact not for a Covid-positive patient, but for the Kremel critic Alexander Navalny, who was probably poisoned at the time. Our vast experience in carrying out infection transports proved to be a real advantage here, as the transport from Omsk to Berlin could be carried out quickly and safely.
Are you seeing an increase now in insurance cases as people are allowed – in some cases – to travel again? If so, in which parts of the world are these taking place?
In fact, in the last 14 days (7-21 June), our service team has received more transport inquiries from typical tourist destinations in Europe such as Greece or Spain. But we are also seeing a gradual increase in requests from more distant destinations such as the Caribbean or destinations in the Far East, with a transport destination in Europe. And since the clients were again our classic customers from the travel insurance and assistance sectors, this development can very likely be attributed to increasing tourist travel activities.
Fleet renewal is essential for air ambulance operators, to ensure they can meet the needs of clients all over the world; what investments have you made in your air medical fleet at the moment, either in terms of aircraft or equipment carried?
Our fleet renewal strategy began over 10 years ago and ended three years ago with the decommissioning of the last Learjet 55. With our pure Bombardier fleet of Learjet 60, Challenger 604 and Global Express, which have an average age of around 20 years old, we should have a significantly younger fleet compared to operators that use the Learjet 35 or similar types of aircraft. Even our Learjet 35s that were used in the past now would have an average age of over 40 years old. In the field of medical equipment, the focus last year was of course on the area of PMIUs, but at the same time, we implemented the development and certification of our new medical walls for all aircraft. In addition, the development and production of new loading ramps, in particular to simplify the loading of the aircraft with the EpiShuttles, has also taken place.
Congratulations on winning the ITIJ Air Ambulance Company of the Year award in 2020; what did winning the award mean to you?
For us, it was the ideal recognition for all employees of the company in an extremely difficult and challenging year!